Joan Shirley Chapple CNZM FRACS
General, Plastic and Hand Surgeon
10 March 1934 – 22 May 2013 

With the death of Joan Chapple on 22 May 2013 New Zealand lost its first female plastic and hand surgeon.  In a male-dominated environment, Joan struggled to gain acceptance and recognition by her colleagues.  Her advocating for the gentle handing of soft tissues with an emphasis on haemostasis, avoidance of tension and the unnecessary use of sutures was slow to gain recognition.  However, Joan’s contributions to medicine and the community were ultimately recognised when she was made CNZM in 2001. 

Joan was born in Te Puke to Kingsley (King) and Winifred Chapple, the middle of five siblings (James, Jocelyn, Joan, John and Jefferson). The children attended Te Matai primary school in rural Bay of Plenty, where their father was headmaster and where of the hundred or so pupils only the Chapples and one other family were non-Maori.  Interestingly, George Plumb, the irascible and stubborn social activist clergyman portrayed in the acclaimed novel, Plumb, written by Joan’s cousin Maurice Gee, was closely modelled on their mutual grandfather James Chapple. Joan may have inherited some of his attributes. 

Joan first attended Te Puke High School and later boarded at Epsom Girl’s Grammar School in Auckland where she was a school prefect in 1951. She became an accomplished cellist and developed a lifelong interest in woodcarving and pottery.

After a medical intermediate year at Auckland University, Joan was accepted to the University of Otago Medical school. She was a diligent and capable student and during her later years, stimulated by Professor Alan Alldred, took a particular interest in orthopaedic surgery.  Joan was one of only nine women among over ninety graduates in 1957.  She gained distinction in surgery and was awarded the Stanley Wilson Prize.

Returning to Auckland as a house surgeon she was a registrar in Plastic Surgery in 1961 completing her FRACS in General Surgery in 1963 and, following in the footsteps of Jean Sandel in New Plymouth who had gained FRCS in 1947, became the second woman in New Zealand to gain a specialist surgical qualification.  Joan travelled to Australia, Britain and Russia for postgraduate training. In Vellore, India, she worked with the celebrated hand surgeon, Paul Brandt, who was pioneering tendon transplantation in the hands of lepers. She finally visited the USA, but she was forced to leave prematurely being accused of un-American activities in the aftermath of the McCarthy era.

On her return to Auckland Joan was appointed to a full- time post in the Plastic Surgical Unit at Middlemore hospital, working under William Manchester, later Sir William.  As the only woman surgeon, she never felt welcome in the Auckland surgical fraternity. It was understood that she would not attend regular meetings at the men-only Northern Club.  In 1972, unmarried, she gave birth to a daughter, Raven. While she asked for only five months maternity leave, this was denied and her job was terminated. It was widely perceived that her dismissal was primarily for moral rather than professional reasons, and it resulted in considerable controversy in the medical and wider community.

Joan was later appointed to a part-time position in the Accident and Emergency department at Auckland Hospital, and served in this position until her retirement in 1994. She developed and practised a then unorthodox thesis of wound management avoiding where possible the use of sutures and emphasizing the importance of haemostasis, gentle handling of tissues and preservation of tissue blood supply with avoidance of tension and pressure.  Although she taught these principles to junior doctors, general practitioners and nurses, who adopted them enthusiastically, her ideas were slow to be accepted by practising surgeons and her criticism of their techniques aroused some resentment.  In 1980 she self-published her ideas in a book entitled “Wound Care and Healing: The Physiological Challenge”. This was based on her experience and included case studies and a unique series of clinical photographs. It was expanded and updated in 2001.

Outside medicine Joan was actively involved in Alliance politics and the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). She also served on the Auckland University Council. She was passionate about the plight of the underdog and sometimes provided hospitality for disadvantaged people at her property at Karaka Bay.

Joan was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to medicine and the community in 2001. Her retirement was marred by major medical issues, first with colonic and later ovarian cancer.

Joan was a compassionate and caring doctor and a generous and loyal friend. Her gender and unconventional attitudes may have restricted her from reaching her full potential as a surgeon, but she was in many ways ahead of her time. Her achievements were significant, and she will be remembered with affection and respect.

She is survived by her daughter Raven and grand-daughter Tilly Lamb.


This obituary was provided by Mr Alan Kerr FRACS and Raven Chapple.